Philadelphia — Remnants from the 18th century President's House at 6th and Market streets were exposed to the public for the last time yesterday after city officials and archaeologists announced a successful dig and an amazing discovery.
Since the dig began in March, archaeologists said they were not expecting to uncover much at first, but their hopes of uncovering relics of the past eventually came to fruition.
Independence National Historic Park and the city announced the President's House site will be covered temporarily in order to protect the architectural findings from the effects of the elements.
"I didn't want to be standing here pointing to an empty hole," Jed Levin, archaeologist with the National Park Service said.
"Yet, I'm still shaking my head in amazement."
The dig commenced as part of the preparatory work for the building of a permanent installation at Independence Mall of George Washington's house and the long-obscured story of the enslaved Africans that lived and toiled there.
Mayor John F. Street started the project in 2003 with a pledge of $1.5 million. Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady later secured a federal grant providing additional funding.
"The way we found [the President's House], it was a tip-off this would be a special project," Levin said.
"These fragments represent the incomplete art of freedom in this country."
The team of archaeologists, under the direction of the Kelly/Maiello firm, discovered much of the original foundation of the house, including the crude frame of a curved bow window that is believed to be the prototype for windows inside the Oval Office in the White House. They also found an underground hallway from the kitchen to the main house, thought to be one of the many service areas used by the working slaves.
"It gives me shivers," Levin said.
Roz McPherson, project manager for the excavation, said she was overwhelmed with the amount of public response to the findings. The city, the National Park Service and Independence National Historic Park are working to incorporate artifacts with the President's House installation.
Joyce Wilkerson, a representative from the mayor's office, said the public reaction has served as a signal the President's House has the potential to become a major national icon in the heart of the city.
But because exposure to air and water threatens the fragile remnants of the house — now more than 200 years old — the dirt would be returned to the site for preservation.
"The site is calling the shots now," McPherson said.
"The discoveries are now real, not just abstract. We're trying to figure out how to incorporate aspects of [the findings] so visitors can have an authentic experience."
The three-story brick mansion was inhabited by Washington from 1790 to 1797 as well as by John Adams, his successor, from 1797 to 1800.
The purpose of the President's House project is to commemorate the events of achievement and infamy that took place there — from the birthplace of democratic ideals to the institution of slavery.
The names of the slaves that lived there — Richmond, Paris, Christopher Shields, Oney Judge, Hercules, Moll, Austin, Joe Richardson and Giles — were engraved on plaques and buried within the site.
"America is great today because it earned it stripes of the backs of my ancestors," Michael Coard, executive director of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) said.
"This day deals with the most important historical site because it's the only place where white freedom and black slavery stand side by side."
Coard, who has been an advocate for the President's House project from the beginning, said the site was essential to bringing to light the 50 million or more Africans who were enslaved in the U.S.
The ceremony concluded with an African prayer and the pouring of droplets of the Nile River and sand from its banks into the 15-ft. deep cavity, to symbolize the presence of a distinct African heritage at the site.
"I'm reminded of the words of humanity...We are now able to talk about slavery and we are, in turn, entrusting this site to you," a woman prayed.
"This is an opportunity to bring African-American history and Washington as a slave owner in the same breath, and to look at them simultaneously."
According to city officials, more than 250,000 visitors have stood at the public viewing platform to witness the dig site, where they heard narratives from archaeologists, saw artifacts unearthed before their eyes and piqued discussions about race relations in the U.S.
As a joint project of Independence National Historic Park and the City of Philadelphia, the archaeological dig will remain dormant until the spring of 2008, when the President's House installation is expected to open to the public.